Warren County officials Tuesday unveiled for the first time a report putting the cost of bringing the county jail up to state standards and ending crowded conditions at as much $56 million.
But it remained unclear when action would be taken or how much public money would be spent to alleviate problems that frustrate local judges and make the facility “a joke in our criminal community,” according to Commissioner Dave Young.
Commissioner Pat South has sat through jail debates the past 20 years.
“I don’t think I was shocked or surprised,” she said, “other than by the dollar amount.”
South said she would look for less expensive options.
This year, due to overcrowding, Sheriff Larry Sims said the county was projected to release 170 inmates that would otherwise be kept behind bars.
More than 3,500 unserved warrants for the arrest of wanted criminals sit in drawers at the sheriff’s office due to the lack of space for anyone brought in, Sims said.
Judges are limited in punishing criminals with limited opportunities to put them in jail.
Still, Tuesday’s meeting ended with no decision or date by which another meeting would be held or a decision made.
“This is just another step in the process,” Young said after the meeting. “The ball’s rolling.”
The Warren County Jail was built in 1975 and last expanded 20 years ago.
In 2010, rather than expand, the county got permission to “double bunk” some prisoners, although it was contrary to jail standards. There are 296 beds, 16 for medical and other special uses.
Sims urged the commissioners to approve a new 450-bed jail to be built over 14 months at a cost of $44 million to $56 million, according to a consultant’s report.
The 64-page report by K2M Design offered two cheaper options: a new 380-bed jail renovation for $38 million to $49 million and expansion of the existing facilities for $35 million to $45 million.
But Scott Maloney, president of K2M, said the 450-bed option was the only one that should solve the county’s jail problems through 2025.
It also required 20 fewer staffers, could be operated less expensively, would be finished sooner than the renovation; and provided a longer-term solution than the smaller new facility, according to the report.
Last month, Young said the county faced a $20 million jail crowding problem. After the meeting, he said he had been “shooting from the hip” during a discussion of the impact of heroin addiction in the county.
South asked what would be done with the current jail.
Some suggested it be converted for drug rehabilitation and other services needed by inmates and others with problems, such as heroin addiction. Better services are expected to reduce the number of prisoners who return after violating the law again, reducing the need for jail cells.
Officials from the juvenile justice system, also pressed for space, were said to be interested in the old jail, part of the sheriff’s office complex in Lebanon.
Young suggested it could be used for those serving misdemeanor DUI sentences.
The new jail would be built near where the current facilities are located.
Commissioner Tom Grossmann suggested the larger the new jail is, the larger the number of cells that could be rented to other counties with jail crowding problems.
Grossmann, whose father was a judge, also questioned why judges weren’t available, as in larger counties, around the clock to deal with cases involving defendants picked up after court hours.
The meeting room was filled, mostly with representatives from the law enforcement community, including sheriff’s deputies, police officers and judges.
On Tuesday, Sims said the jail was “four over” maximum capacity for both male and female prisoners, forcing staff into a “juggling act” designed to prevent another inmate-on-inmate assault, the incidence of which he said has jumped since doors were taken off the doors of some of the cells to allow for two prisoners to inhabit one cell.
Sims urged the commissioners to allow him and the consultant to move ahead on the new jail, but said afterward he was satisfied by the progress made in the meeting.
Young said there would be more meetings held with Sims and the consultants, and more time spent digesting the report. No dates had been set.
The county has set aside $800,000 for jail expansion and was unlikely to spend anywhere near $56 million, Young said.
“We’ve never spent that much money on anything,” he said.
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